For a while now it has been clear that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been frustrated by the continuing impact of the virus. His whole political agenda and the nation’s finances have been bent out of shape in the effort to contain and combat it. Barely two years have passed since he won his great General Election victory bursting with hope and optimism but all too soon he was plunged into a series of necessary but draconian edicts and freedom curbing measures on a hitherto unknown scale and duration. For a famously liberty loving Prime Minister high office has demanded of him unimaginable decisions. It’s not just the Premiership either that has made demands on him. For Boris personally the last two years have been full ones – divorced, re-married, a new child with another one on the way, the loss of his mother, and himself seriously ill with COVID. By any measure it’s been a busy time for him and no wonder he is anxious to re-focus the government on the policies on which he won the general election.
In recent days those close to the Prime Minister have been saying he was “in clear the decks mode” and that he was in a “determined mood” to refocus the priorities of his government and deliver on his domestic agenda. The reshuffle is part of this effort, alongside the delivery of care and NHS funding the announcement of which he delivered himself, the upcoming spending review and budget, setting the scene for handling COVID through the winter, the new security agreement with Australia and the United States, and the choice of a new Chief of the Defence Staff. Shortly there will be a speech at the UN reasserting Britain’s presence on the world stage and a meeting with President Biden at the White House cementing the new relationship founded in the new security arrangements.
Reshuffles rarely change policy priorities. They are primarily about the exercise of the Prime Ministerial prerogative to hire and fire. This reshuffle showed the Prime Minister remains the great power, unchallenged in his government. The hiatus around Dominic Raab not withstanding the reshuffle went without any apparent hitch. Moving Oliver Dowden to the party chairmanship is perhaps the politically shrewdest of the appointments. Political machines are often ignored and allowed to stagnate when a party is in power. Dowden, a party man to his finger tips, will ensure the political machine is kept in very good order. The departure of Robert Buckland is sad. The promotions of Anne Marie Trevelyan and Nadhim Zahawi are very welcome. Liz Truss will bring zest and brillo to a bruised Foreign Office. Nadine Dorries will certainly give the Culture Department a run for their money. Steve Barclay will find his role at the Cabinet Office is powerful and influential if done effectively and he’s a worthy successor to Michael Gove who will bring much needed focus and energy to his new responsibilities. There are some notable omissions from the new top line-up, Penny Mordaunt and Kit Malthouse being the two most obvious.
The challenges facing the country, as always, are real and serious. Pandemic and Brexit after shocks continue. Continuing public service delivery and business environment reform much needed. There’s no question that this shake-up has strengthened the government and enhanced the Prime Minister’s already dominant position - and that’s not something that can be said about many of these reshuffles.